The Ancient Origins of Neural Substrates for Land Walking
Walking is the predominant locomotor behavior expressed by land-dwelling vertebrates, but it is unknown when the neural circuits that are essential for limb control first appeared. Certain fish species display walking-like behaviors, raising the possibility that the underlying circuitry originated in primitive marine vertebrates. We show that the neural substrates of bipedalism are present in the little skate Leucoraja erinacea, whose common ancestor with tetrapods existed âˆ¼420 million years ago. Leucoraja exhibits core features of tetrapod locomotor gaits, including left-right alternation and reciprocal extension-flexion of the pelvic fins. Leucoraja also deploys a remarkably conserved Hox transcription factor-dependent program that is essential for selective innervation of fin/limb muscle. This network encodes peripheral connectivity modules that are distinct from those used in axial muscle-based swimming and has apparently been diminished in most modern fish. These findings indicate that the circuits that are essential for walking evolved through adaptation of a genetic regulatory network shared by all vertebrates with paired appendages. VIDEO ABSTRACT.
Columnar-Intrinsic Cues Shape Premotor Input Specificity in Locomotor Circuits
Control of movement relies on the ability of circuits within the spinal cord to establish connections with specific subtypes of motor neuron (MN). Although the pattern of output from locomotor networks can be influenced by MN position and identity, whether MNs exert an instructive role in shaping synaptic specificity within the spinal cord is unclear. We show that Hox transcription-factor-dependent programs in MNs are essential in establishing the central pattern of connectivity within the ventral spinal cord. Transformation of axially projecting MNs to a limb-level lateral motor column (LMC) fate, through mutation of the Hoxc9 gene, causes the central afferents of limb proprioceptive sensory neurons to target MNs connected to functionally inappropriate muscles. MN columnar identity also determines the pattern and distribution of inputs from multiple classes of premotor interneurons, indicating that MNs broadly influence circuit connectivity. These findings indicate that MN-intrinsic programs contribute to the initial architecture of locomotor circuits.
Molecular Logic of Spinocerebellar Tract Neuron Diversity and Connectivity
Coordinated motor behaviors depend on feedback communication between peripheral sensory systems and central circuits in the brain and spinal cord. Relay of muscle- and tendon-derived sensory information to the CNS is facilitated by functionally and anatomically diverse groups of spinocerebellar tract neurons (SCTNs), but the molecular logic by which SCTN diversity and connectivity is achieved is poorly understood. We used single-cell RNA sequencing and genetic manipulations to define the mechanisms governing the molecular profile and organization of SCTN subtypes. We found that SCTNs relaying proprioceptive sensory information from limb and axial muscles are generated through segmentally restricted actions of specific Hox genes. Loss of Hox function disrupts SCTN-subtype-specific transcriptional programs, leading to defects in the connections between proprioceptive sensory neurons, SCTNs, and the cerebellum. These results indicate that Hox-dependent genetic programs play essential roles in the assembly of neural circuits necessary for communication between the brain and spinal cord.
PRC1 sustains the integrity of neural fate in the absence of PRC2 function
Polycomb repressive complexes (PRCs) 1 and 2 maintain stable cellular memories of early fate decisions by establishing heritable patterns of gene repression. PRCs repress transcription through histone modifications and chromatin compaction, but their roles in neuronal subtype diversification are poorly defined. We found that PRC1 is essential for the specification of segmentally-restricted spinal motor neuron (MN) subtypes, while PRC2 activity is dispensable to maintain MN positional identities during terminal differentiation. Mutation of the core PRC1 component Ring1 in mice leads to increased chromatin accessibility and ectopic expression of a broad variety of fates determinants, including Hox transcription factors, while neuronal class-specific features are maintained. Loss of MN subtype identities in Ring1 mutants is due to the suppression of Hox-dependent specification programs by derepressed Hox13 paralogs (Hoxa13, Hoxb13, Hoxc13, Hoxd13). These results indicate that PRC1 can function in the absence of de novo PRC2-dependent histone methylation to maintain chromatin topology and postmitotic neuronal fate.
Big insight from the little skate: Leucoraja erinacea as a developmental model system
The vast majority of extant vertebrate diversity lies within the bony and cartilaginous fish lineages of jawed vertebrates. There is a long history of elegant experimental investigation of development in bony vertebrate model systems (e.g., mouse, chick, frog and zebrafish). However, studies on the development of cartilaginous fishes (sharks, skates and rays) have, until recently, been largely descriptive, owing to the challenges of embryonic manipulation and culture in this group. This, in turn, has hindered understanding of the evolution of developmental mechanisms within cartilaginous fishes and, more broadly, within jawed vertebrates. The little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) is an oviparous cartilaginous fish and has emerged as a powerful and experimentally tractable developmental model system. Here, we discuss the collection, husbandry and management of little skate brood stock and eggs, and we present an overview of key stages of skate embryonic development. We also discuss methods for the manipulation and culture of skate embryos and illustrate the range of tools and approaches available for studying this system. Finally, we summarize a selection of recent studies on skate development that highlight the utility of this system for inferring ancestral anatomical and developmental conditions for jawed vertebrates, as well as unique aspects of cartilaginous fish biology.
Differential abilities to engage inaccessible chromatin diversify vertebrate HOX binding patterns
While Hox genes encode for conserved transcription factors (TFs), they are further divided into anterior, central, and posterior groups based on their DNA-binding domain similarity. The posterior Hox group expanded in the deuterostome clade and patterns caudal and distal structures. We aim to address how similar HOX TFs diverge to induce different positional identities. We studied HOX TF DNA-binding and regulatory activity during an in vitro motor neuron differentiation system that recapitulates embryonic development. We find diversity in the genomic binding profiles of different HOX TFs, even among the posterior group paralogs that share similar DNA binding domains. These differences in genomic binding are explained by differing abilities to bind to previously inaccessible sites. For example, the posterior group HOXC9 has a greater ability to bind occluded sites than the posterior HOXC10, producing different binding patterns and driving differential gene expression programs. From these results, we propose that the differential abilities of posterior HOX TFs to bind to previously inaccessible chromatin drive patterning diversification.
Intrinsic control of neuronal diversity and synaptic specificity in a proprioceptive circuit
Relay of muscle-derived sensory information to the CNS is essential for the execution of motor behavior, but how proprioceptive sensory neurons (pSNs) establish functionally appropriate connections is poorly understood. A prevailing model of sensory-motor circuit assembly is that peripheral, target-derived, cues instruct pSN identities and patterns of intraspinal connectivity. To date no known intrinsic determinants of muscle-specific pSN fates have been described in vertebrates. We show that expression of Hox transcription factors defines pSN subtypes, and these profiles are established independently of limb muscle. The Hoxc8 gene is expressed by pSNs and motor neurons (MNs) targeting distal forelimb muscles, and sensory-specific depletion of Hoxc8 in mice disrupts sensory-motor synaptic matching, without affecting pSN survival or muscle targeting. These results indicate that the diversity and central specificity of pSNs and MNs are regulated by a common set of determinants, thus linking early rostrocaudal patterning to the assembly of limb control circuits.
Evolution of Locomotor Rhythms
Nervous systems control locomotion using rhythmically active networks that orchestrate motor neuron firing patterns. Whether animals use common or distinct genetic programs to encode motor rhythmicity remains unclear. Cross-species comparisons have revealed remarkably conserved neural patterning systems but have also unveiled divergent circuit architectures that can generate similar locomotor behaviors.
Development, functional organization, and evolution of vertebrate axial motor circuits
Neuronal control of muscles associated with the central body axis is an ancient and essential function of the nervous systems of most animal species. Throughout the course of vertebrate evolution, motor circuits dedicated to control of axial muscle have undergone significant changes in their roles within the motor system. In most fish species, axial circuits are critical for coordinating muscle activation sequences essential for locomotion and play important roles in postural correction. In tetrapods, axial circuits have evolved unique functions essential to terrestrial life, including maintaining spinal alignment and breathing. Despite the diverse roles of axial neural circuits in motor behaviors, the genetic programs underlying their assembly are poorly understood. In this review, we describe recent studies that have shed light on the development of axial motor circuits and compare and contrast the strategies used to wire these neural networks in aquatic and terrestrial vertebrate species.
De Novo DNA Methylation: Marking the Path from Stem Cell to Neural Fate
DNA methylation is an epigenetic mark that plays pivotal roles in gene regulation, but its functions in neural fate decisions are poorly understood. In this issue of Cell Stem Cell, Ziller etÂ al. (2018) show that the de novo methyltransferase Dnmt3a ensures efficient generation of motor neurons from stem cells.